The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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The Last Children of Tokyo: Yoko Tawada

★★½

I keep reading modern Japanese fiction in the hope that, one day, it will suddenly all make sense; but it hasn’t happened yet. This slim little book is, for the most part, a gentle and achingly tragic tale of a near future that feels all too plausible. Environmental and nuclear catastrophe has led to political isolationism, mass extinction and the reversal of the natural order: the old remain spry and sprightly into extreme old age, while the children suffer from genetic mutations and endemic sickness. We watch an old man struggling to care for his great-grandson, and trying to come to terms with the guilt of an entire generation. It all flows along terribly well until the last pages, when a sudden and utterly unnecessary narrative shift leaves you floundering at the final curtain.

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Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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An Almond for a Parrot: Wray Delaney

★★★

Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was weary of Victorian jail-fiction, so you may think it strange that here I am, posting on another novel about a woman in prison. But this is different to the likes of The Corset: there are no naive lady visitors, no stern matrons, nor are we in the prim 19th century. No: it’s 1756, in the very bosom of the Georgian age, and this is a racy fable full of rogues and ladies of the night, and touched with odd, piquant flashes of magic. Tully Truegood is in Newgate, awaiting trial for murder, her life briefly secured by the child growing under her heart. She has been many things – a daughter, a whore, a sprite, and a magician – and, as she waits, she feels a compulsion rising in her to tell her story to the one man, now long absent, that she’s ever loved.

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The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

★★★★

When I reviewed Bellman & Black, some years ago, several of you urged me to go back and read Diane Setterfield’s earlier novel The Thirteenth Tale. And so I have! You see, I do listen. It just takes me five years… And it was worth the wait, for I thoroughly enjoyed it. Setterfield weaves a modern Gothic tale full of mystery and tragedy, spiced with congenital madness, the crumbling rooms of a remote old house, and twins. Better still, it has a genuine bibliophile as the heroine and a reclusive writer as its enigmatic object. In fact, the whole story is a love letter to the power of fiction, which can sweep us away from the world around us, provide a retreat in hard times, and even transform our own pasts.

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The Hall of the Mountain King: Judith Tarr

★★★½

The Avaryan Rising Trilogy: Book I

I’ve wanted to read more by Judith Tarr ever since finishing A Wind in Cairo and, thanks to a very bountiful visit to Hay-on-Wye, I now have quite a few of her books lined up. The opening salvo was this high-fantasy trilogy, combining court intrigue with an elemental struggle between light and dark. It begins with a loss: the disappearance of the old king’s daughter, chosen as his heir but consecrated to the Sun God. She leaves on the traditional Journey of a trainee priest; and never returns. For twenty-one years, the old king stands waiting every morning on the battlements of his mountain-locked castle, hoping that his beloved heir will return. One morning, he has an answer, in the form of a young man, a stranger, who bears an almost incredible message. He is Mirain, the son of the lost princess, fathered by the Sun God himself, and he has come home. His arrival brings joy to the heart of his aged grandfather, but alarm to the court – for this stranger has, at one stroke, destabilised all the hopes of the king’s illegitimate son…

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Tongues of Serpents: Naomi Novik

★★★½

Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

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Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

★★★★

I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?

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The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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Sherlock’s World: Ann K. McClellan

★★★

Fan Fiction and the Reimagining of BBC’s Sherlock

In December 2013 at the BFI, Caitlin Moran persuaded the unwilling Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read from an explicit homoerotic fanfic based on their characters in the BBC’s Sherlock series. The internet condemnation was swift. Fans felt that Moran had betrayed the unspoken rules: that fanfiction is written by fans for fans and that it’s shared in a safe space. The author of the fic in question, who hadn’t been consulted, was humiliated and mortified that two of her idols had been made to read her story out as a joke, and that her work had been singled out by Moran as an example of the embarrassing extremes of Sherlock fandom. Obviously it was an ill-judged move on Moran’s part and I feel deeply for the poor fan whose heartfelt writing was held up for a cheap laugh. But this episode only came about because Sherlock has created such a broad, lively and vocal fandom – especially extraordinary given there are only twelve episodes in the four seasons to date (plus a special). This scholarly study, to be published in October, delves into Sherlock fandom and forms an introduction to fan culture more generally.

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